Raising the level of your leadership

“It Can Wait”

WaterCooler4x3“How did your meeting with the boss go?”

“Really great. I had a lot to cover in only 20 minutes, but that was enough.”

“Where did you meet with her?”

“In her office. She had a plane to catch so there wasn’t time for her to come here.”

“What happened?”

“Well, two minutes in, her assistant interrupted with “You have an important phone call from a customer.” Her response was “This is important too. I’ll call them back on the way to the airport.” Then her email binged. She turned it off. Then her broker called. She didn’t take that call either.”

“So you got to give the pitch without being interrupted?”


“How did that make you feel?”

“Important. Appreciated.”

“Did you get the answer you wanted?”

“No. But I got the attention I wanted, so I’m okay with the answer.”

Scott Peck—“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

James C Hunter in The Servant—“…listening is probably our greatest opportunity to give attention to others on a daily basis and convey how much we value them.”

How are you doing? Cell phone ignored when someone is talking to you? Newspaper down or TV silenced when your spouse or child is trying to get your attention? (I need to do a lot better.)

People—at work or at home—don’t always expect to get their way. They do expect to get a hearing. Great leaders are first of all great listeners.

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard lessons Company

“Me Do It”

WaterCooler4x3“Did you get your project approved?”


“That’s great. You must be excited.”

“I am, but also a bit scared.”

“Why scared? You can do it.”

“Well, he was clear about what he expected, but he didn’t give me much direction about how to do it. In fact, he didn’t give me any direction at all. I’m worried that I might not do it the way he wants it done.”

“He didn’t tell you how to do it?”

“No. All he said was for me to ask for help if I needed it.”

“So you get to do it the way you want to?”

“Yes, as long as the result is what we agreed on.”

“I wish my boss was like that. Every time I get an assignment, he tells me in great detail exactly how to do it. Makes me feel like a child or a robot. You’re lucky to work for someone who lets you do it your own way.”

images-3It starts when we are two years old—“me do it…me do it.” And the truth is, we never grow out of it. None of us really like to be told how to do something. We all want to be like Frank Sinatra who sang, “I did it my way.”

If you are a “my way or the highway” leader:

  • You aren’t a leader at all—you’re a boss.
  • The best and brightest won’t work for you for long. They’ll move on. You’ll end up with a mediocre team at best.
  • You are 100% responsible for the results since you want it done “your way.” If you don’t get what you want, too bad.
  • Your team members won’t grow up. They’ll be two year olds forever.

Take a chance. Turn your team loose. Let “I did it my way” mean you let them do it their way.

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Who’s Number One?

AAH Helicopter CroppedMy first encounter with Lloyd Shoppa was coaching 5th and 6th grade boys in basketball. My team was the Red Raiders. I don’t remember the name of Lloyd’s team, but I remember they wore black uniforms and beat our brains out. He was a good coach. He was also a good production control director at Bell Helicopter where we both worked.

My second encounter with Lloyd came soon after I escaped the engineering bullpen and was promoted (my first promotion) to project engineer on the Advanced Attack Helicopter project team. I thought I was special, and for sure I thought our project was special because the company president had anointed it as the company’s highest priority. To make sure everyone knew, we printed AAH #1 stickers and put them everywhere; not a popular move with the other project teams.

It takes about three zillion parts to make a helicopter. Making sure each part is available when needed is a huge and critical task because a shortage can shut down an assembly line. Not cool. One of my daily tasks was to attend a part shortage meeting—chaired by Lloyd. All the part shortages on all the different projects were discussed. After attending a couple of meetings, I decided that the AAH project was not getting the attention it deserved. After all, we were #1. Being young and foolish (older now, but still foolish), I decided it was my responsibility to remind everyone that according to our company president, the AAH was our #1 priority and should be treated as such in the meetings. It got very quiet in the room. My little speech was about as popular as the stickers we had plastered all over the company.

Lloyd, without raising his voice, looked at me and said, “Dick, in this room, everything is #1.” In that one simple statement, Lloyd sent a message to everyone in the room, especially to me. He brought me down a bit, and lifted everyone else a bit. Something I needed and something they needed.

That was about forty years ago, but it was a lesson I have never forgotten. Rankings may be fine for NCAA football, but when it comes to people, customers, project teams, etc., a Level 5 leader is going to make everyone feel like they are #1. If you want and need #1 commitment and performance from people, don’t ever tell them they are #2. They may believe you and act like it.

So, who is #1? Everyone!

(By the way, Lloyd finished his long successful career at Bell as the company president.)

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

The Twinkie Resurrection

TwinkiesTwinkies are back—from the dead! After shuttering all their bakeries and laying off thousands of employees in 2012, the golden, cream-filled, 150 calorie, spongy cakes are back on the shelves at more places than ever. I call it the Twinkie Resurrection, but Twinkie Revolution might be a better description.

Why revolution?

Today’s Twinkies are made by $20 million robotic Auto-Bake systems run by 500 people instead of 9000 before the revolution. Result: lower costs.

The new Twinkie has a shelf life of 65 days—up from 25 for the old Twinkie. What difference does that make? Delivery costs have been cut in half, enabling the number of Twinkie retail outlets to be more than doubled. Result: higher sales in more markets.

The bakeries have been modernized and airflow has been improved for the benefit of the workers during the hot summer months. So much for management not caring. Result: better working conditions.

Production, inventory and logistics are now managed by a new SAP software system. Results: current and accurate information in the hands of the decision makers.

What is the bottom line? Cash flow is running more than 75% ahead of the forecast, prompting a decision to use the same approach to reopen the Hostess CupCake lines. Result: more jobs, more sales, more profit, and more happy customers.

The Twinkie Resurrection Story is a classic case of new leadership with a new vision, giving new life and new hope to a dead organization—really dead in the Twinkie case. If your organization (business, church, college, or whatever) is dead or dying, tweaking will not be enough. You need a resurrection strategy. Is it possible? Drive to your closest convenience store and buy a Twinkie for inspiration. Then, remember if you’re the leader, it’s up to you!

[Read The Twinkie Miracle from the May 4th edition of Forbes for the full story.]

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Plug ’em In Yourself

Unplugged CroppedAlmost seven out of ten employees admit they are unplugged, not really engaged—giving their best—in their work. Can your organization really flourish with that level of engagement?

Whether you lead a large or small business, a mega-church or rural chapel, a college, or a government agency, you need employees, staff, and volunteers who are actively working for the good of the organization.

After all, you have opportunities to seize and problems to fix; good things you want to make great and mediocre things you want to make good (or get rid of). But the big question is: do your associates have the same goals? Are they really plugged in—engaged—ready to give their best to make it happen? Or are they sitting on the sidelines watching, waiting for you to tell them what to do, or worse, waiting for you to fail? The latest Gallup data (2014) reveals that only 31% of employees are actively engaged; 51% are on the sidelines “just doing their job”; 18% are “actively disengaged”—making no effort to help.

Getting your employees to plug in to organizational aspirations is essential if you want to actually achieve your goals. Engaged employees perform at a much higher level. (There are mounds of supporting data, plus in your heart you know it’s true because you know how your own performance excels when you are plugged in.)

How to get your associates actively and positively engaged is a multi-faceted subject—too broad for a one-page blog posting. Maybe you should hire someone like me to help you. Right? Well, I wouldn’t start with that since…

  • Engagement is not drawing employees into your world; it only happens when you enter their world.
  • It doesn’t start with them engaging with you; it starts with you engaging with them.

“People today demand personal relationships with their leaders before they will give themselves fully to their jobs.” (Bill George, True North)

Your employees will engage with you when you engage with them—not before. Why don’t you get started today? Take a walk. Sit down and eat lunch in the factory break room. Have a ten-minute conversation at the water cooler. Have a pizza party for no reason at all. Intentionally sit down with one of the 18%ers and talk about their family, not their attitude. These things are much cheaper and more effective than bringing in a consultant. (But I’ll come if you want me to.)

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Road Signs

LOST-etcThere isn’t much more frustrating than road signs that don’t help you find your way. If you have a GPS system, you can find your way no matter what the road signs say. But if you don’t, you sometimes have to guess and hope you end up at the right place. In organizations, the best road signs are the people. Pay attention to the signals you are getting from them. Ignoring them can lead to dead ends, or worse, bridge-out disasters.


LOST: It is because the organization (including the leadership) doesn’t know where it is and probably didn’t know where it was going before it got lost. [Denial of reality is often the problem.]

UNSURE: It is because the organization is always changing direction—west today, east tomorrow, and then west again. [This is often a result of a latest-fad strategy. And since the latest fad is always changing…well, you get the idea.]

CONFUSED: It is because the road signs are in conflict, one pointing north and one pointing south. [One leader is saying one thing; another leader is saying something different.]

UNCLEAR: It is because communication is unclear: “Do you have any idea what he/she said?” [The responsibility for clarity is with the communicator not the listener. What you think you said and what people heard may not be the same thing.]

PERPLEXED: It is because the values, policies, etc., don’t apply to everyone. [Preferential treatment for some will kill your credibility as a leader.]

BEWILDERED: It is because they have no idea “why” the organization is headed a particular direction. [Purpose, values, vision, etc., are not understood.]

DISORIENTED: It is because they are LOST, UNSURE, CONFUSED, UNCLEAR, PERPLEXED, AND BEWILDERED. The organization seems to be spinning out-of-control and they feel helpless. [This is an organization that is nearing the end. Read How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins.]

Wonder where your organization is headed? Look at the road signs.

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Margin Matters

U.S. FLOODS 1889 JOHNSTOWNOn May 31, 1889, at 3:10pm, the South Fork Dam collapsed, releasing nearly 5 billion gallons of water in 35-40 minutes into the Little Conemaugh River (about the same amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls). One hour later, a wall of water—60 feet high in some places—hit the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, devastating the town and sweeping more than 2200 people to their deaths. The courts ruled the disaster was an Act Of God, and the heavy rainfall certainly was. But it was decisions made by man that caused the dam to collapse; decisions that eliminated the margin of safety every dam—and every organization and person—needs when the pressure is rising.

I do not claim to be a dam designer, but I know that margin matters. Well-designed dams have a margin of safety—a way to release rising water before it puts the dam at risk. There are discharge pipes that can be opened to lower the level of the water and spillways that release rising water before it reaches the top of the dam. The higher the water, the greater the pressure on the dam, so releasing the water before it reaches the top of the dam is critically important.

At the South Fork dam, there were no discharge pipes. As the rain hammered down and the water continued to rise, there was nothing they could do but watch. Higher and higher the water rose until it reached the spillway. But the spillway was clogged and couldn’t do its job. In order to keep fish from escaping the lake, a screen had been put across the spillway. During the heavy rain, all kinds of debris had drifted down the lake, caught on the screen and clogged the spillway, making it nearly useless. No discharge pipes and a clogged spillway meant rising water putting higher and higher pressure on the dam. No margin. A recipe for disaster? Yes.

And it’s a recipe for disaster in your personal life and for your organization. Margin matters. When the pressure is on, you better have a way of lowering the level of the water. Make sure your discharge pipes are working and your spillways not clogged. If you let the pressure rise too much, sooner or later, you—or your organization—will collapse and the casualty list will be high.

But there is more to margin than just avoiding disasters. Brad Lomenick had this to say about margin in a 2013 blog:

Margin is a powerful concept. It creates opportunities. For businesses, margin is one of your top priorities. Margin in business creates profits. Margin in family creates memories. Margin in your personal finances creates generosity. Margin in friendships creates significance and impact. Margin in our lives overall creates options. Options to pursue dreams, think, pray, relax, meditate, process, grow and ultimately live life more fully.” (Making Time For Margin, bradlomenick.com)

Feeling the pressure today? Don’t ignore it. Do something about it! Do something to avoid disaster and to “create opportunities.”

Any reason you can’t start cleaning out your spillways today?

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Don’t Leave Dragons On The Loose

DragonNot much has changed since Beowulf had to slay the dragons that were wreaking havoc in Denmark. First he struck down the dragon Grendal. Later he took out Grendal’s mother—half-human and half-dragon (trust me, she did not look like Angelina Jolie of the 2007 movie). However, one dragon remained to threaten Beowulf’s reign as king, and in end, it brought him down, proving that…

It never does to leave a live dragon out of the equation.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Today (1600 years later), leaders are still being brought down by leaving dragons out of the equation. Almost every organization has one…or more. The dragon is the unspoken truth—the issue that most everyone knows about and fears. The dragon can stop change initiatives and sink morale. No one can do anything about the dragon except the leader. If the dragon has been around a long time, most people are resigned to the fact that the leader probably won’t do anything. So the best and brightest leave for greener pastures, and everyone else hunkers down, trying to be invisible to both the leader and the dragon.

Dragons are often people: turf shepherds, abusive managers, relatives or close friends of the leader. The most dangerous situation is when the leader is the dragon. Dragons can also be incompetence in key positions, obsolete technology, products that are endangered species, or software that doesn’t work (possibly sold to the organization by the leader’s brother-in-law).

If your organization has a dragon—and it probably does—it will eventually bring you down if you don’t slay it. Generally, dragons can’t be reformed; they have to be removed. It is your job as the leader to get the unspoken truth on the table:

Leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard
and the brutal facts confronted.
Jim Collins

What kind of climate does your organization have? Are the truth and brutal facts confronted—honestly confronted—even when they are about you? Are you the dragon? If you aren’t sure, get help. If you don’t, you may end up like Beowulf.

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

Don’t Stomp On The Day Crickets

CricketA few years back while relaxing in the North Georgia mountains, I was sitting on a cabin deck reading with one eye and trying to keep the other one open. My solitude was rudely interrupted and irritated by a day cricket. When it should have been hidden under a leaf somewhere sleeping and waiting for nightfall, it was chirping away repeatedly – chhiiirrrrppppp… chhiiirrrrppppp…chhiiirrrrppppp. One stupid cricket that was supposed to be asleep—like all the other crickets—was ruining my afternoon and potential nap by chirping away, intentionally annoying me. If I could have found it, I would have stomped on it and put me out of my misery.

In organizational life, day crickets are the ones with the crazy ideas—the ones you try to avoid when you see them coming. They think of themselves as creative and innovative; most of the organization thinks of them as a pain in the…whatever. It is true that day crickets are often chirping about things that aren’t relevant or sound more like science fiction than reality. But they are often the source of breakthrough ideas that change the future. Too often, we deal with them by stomping on them. We would be better off if we listened to them.

If Hewlett-Packard had listened to day crickets (the two Steves), HP would be Apple instead of Apple being Apple. There are hundreds of examples of day crickets being stomped on in one organization, but changing the future of another because someone would listen to them. Next time you are irritated by a day cricket, take a deep breath, steel yourself, pray for patience, then listen. You’ll be a better leader for it and maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear an idea that will change the future of your organization.

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

MythBusters About Change

MythFailed change is more common than successful change in people and in organizations. According to the Katzenbach Center, only about half (50%) of significant change initiatives “accomplish and sustain their goals.” Wow—only half! A 2013 IBM study concluded that only 20%—1 out of 5—change projects are “highly successful.” Change is hard to initiate and even harder to finish. Why? Change myths are part of the reason.

Myth #1: People and organizations change when they need to. Really? Why are so many people overweight? I need to lose about five pounds. But I haven’t made the changes necessary to lose it. Some people need to stop piling up debt—but they don’t. Organizations have a lot of changes they need to make. But for whatever reason, they don’t get around to it, or when they try, it fizzles out. It takes a lot more than need to drive successful change.

Myth #2: People and organizations change when they want to. Not only do I need to lose those five pounds, I want to. Enough said.

Myth #3: Fear is an effective means of promoting change. “If you don’t…you’ll be fired.” What a waste of time. Any change that arises from fear will be short-lived and marginal. It is a sign that bosses and bullies are in charge, not authentic leaders.

Myth #4: A PowerPoint presentation that fully explains the reason will successfully drive change. “If they understand, they’ll be eager to change.” Baloney. Somebody else will be giving reasons for not changing. And what about all the right brain artists out there? They hate PowerPoint presentations.

Myth #5: Casting vision over and over will bring change. This is just hubris on the part of the leader—believing that people will do whatever he/she asks them to do. People and organizations do not change because of somebody else’s vision.

So what will initiate and sustain change? It’s complicated, but start with these two things: people and organizations attempt change when they have to, or when they are inspired to. The leader’s job is to inspire change before the “have to change” kicks in. Think about it.

If your organization needs change, put away your charts, graphs, and bullet points. Trying engaging people’s hearts. Try “we” instead of “me.” Try clarity instead of confusion. Try leading instead of telling. Maybe you’ll beat the Katzenbach or IBM odds.

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© Copyright 2015 by Dick wells, The Hard Lessons Company

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